War Games

Ohr Hachayim Genesis: Vayishlach

War Games

“Skillfullness in moving an opponent about comes through

Positioning the opponent is compelled to follow

And gifts the opponent is compelled to take.

Through the promise of gain,

An opponent is moved about

While the army lies in wait.”

– Sun-Tzu

In the confrontation between Jacob and his brother Esau, Jacob is classically depicted as the weaker party. Esau approaches with 400 warriors against Jacob’s shepherd family. Jacob debases himself in front of the formidable Esau who in the end is merciful and lets Jacob continue on his way.

But based on the Ohr Hachayim, I see Jacob as a master strategist that was ready to pounce on Esau if the war-like brother decided to attack.

I was always confused by the explanation that Jacob split his camp into two, so that one of the camps might “flee” if the other was attacked. The Ohr Hachayim (Genesis 32:8) explains that the second camp wasn’t prepared to flee, but rather to attack. The first camp was a “front,” a peaceful guise to keep matters calm.

If Esau could keep the peace, that was preferable, but if not, Jacob was ready for war. He was ready, but not hopeless or even desperate as we might have imagined. Jacob performs a dangerous covert overnight mission of the night-crossing of the Yabok River. He places his forces at the location of his choosing. He leads Esau’s force with his “gifts” to his preferred location. He meets Esau with a “peaceful” camp, while a fully armed and ready force is waiting in the wings for Jacob’s signal.

We don’t know what might have been if the brothers would have conducted open warfare. I would have put money on Jacob (with God’s assistance) having the superior tactical advantage and besting his brother Esau.

May we be spared the harms of war, but be prepared to fight when we must.

Shabbat Shalom,



To my son, Eitan, on signing up with the IDF this month.

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